The No Asshole Rule

April 5, 2010

I recently had the chance to take an entertaining and enlightening class from Bob Sutton, professor of management at Stanford University and author of the book “The No Asshole Rule.”  By Professor Sutton’s definition, workplace assholes are employees who deliberately make co-workers feel bad about themselves and who are openly aggressive to others who have less power. Not surprisingly, Sutton’s research shows that workplace assholes are detrimental to businesses. His unequivocal solution: get rid of them.

The book makes the point that all of us have some traits of workplace assholes and provides a 24-item self-test with true/false items such as the following:

  • Sometimes you just can’t contain your contempt toward the losers and jerks in your workplace.
  • You have the feeling that people are always very careful about what they say around you.
  • You secretly enjoy watching other people suffer and squirm.

Not long after the book was published, well-known blogger Guy Kawasaki renamed the test ARSE (Asshole Rating Self-Exam) and put the survey on-line. Since then, more than 220,000 people have completed it with a mean score of 6.7. According to the on-line survey, a score of 5-10 is described as a borderline certified asshole, suggesting that “the time has come to start changing your behavior before it gets worse.”   A lot of us seem to fall into this category.

Before we assume that there is a disportionate number of difficult employees in the workplace, we need to remember we can’t know how many people have completed the test for themselves or for others.  In addition, there has been lots of research that show that self-assessments have scale bias.  As such, we shouldn’t worry about the exact scores.

During our class, Professor Sutton explained that the test was not intended to be precise and was best used to provoke awareness of difficult behaviors.  He pointed out that the book contained suggested remedies for each behavior and methods for dealing with them in others.   We debated whether a “certified asshole” would ever take the test themselves and therefore whether the test could really create awareness.

It was a spirited debate that was never really resolved.  However, Professor Sutton suggested a very simple question that would serve as a reasonable proxy for the survey:

Do people feel more or less energized after talking to you?

It’s a great way to test your impact on those around you; if you’re reducing energy, you might be exhibiting workplace asshole behavior.  I encourage you to ask yourself this question at the end of every day.   I do.